When do we call a slave a slave? The question came up recently when Rand and Ron Paul described a right to health care as leading, ultimately, to slavery:
[W]hen I hear this stuff I think of my former professor, the late great libertarian political philosopher Robert Nozick who developed the notion (“demoktesis”) that democratic governance is a form of slavery. Nozick is a very smart guy and the position is rigorously argued. That said, regulated welfare state capitalism is clearly not actually the same as slavery.
I was never lucky enough to study under Nozick, but I think the great libertarian might agree with his pupil. Consider Nozick’s “Tale of the Slave” in Anarchy, State, and Utopia (pp 290-291, for those following at home). Roughly, picture that each of the following is about you, and that each represents a development from the previous scenario:
- There is a slave completely at his master’s mercy. He’s arbitrarily beaten and made to work late at night. We infer he is treated with no form of dignity or respect, given no choice of occupation, and given no leisure time.
- The master of the second slave is kindlier. He only beats the slave for stated infractions. The slave gets some free time, too.
- The master has a group of slaves, and he allocates resources to them based on needs and merit.
- The master demands only three days’ work per week. The rest is free time.
- The master lets the slaves earn wages full-time. He only requires that you send him three-sevenths of what you earn. (No, you don’t get any voice in how it is spent.) You may occasionally be conscripted for involuntary labor in an emergency. Certain dangerous acts — mountain climbing, smoking cigarettes — are forbidden to you.
- The master has 10,000 slaves. Each of the others votes, but not you, and they do not consult you on their decisions. The vote determines how the plantation will be run. (I infer, though some do not, that the slaves could vote you into a lower-numbered state in the sequence. Nozick states that they may adopt kinder procedures, but he doesn’t rule out the possibility of harsher ones.)
- Though you still don’t have the vote, you may discuss upcoming decisions with the 10,000 slave-electors. Then they vote, and the results are binding.
- In appreciation for your useful input, they let you cast a vote on a piece of paper separate from their ballots. If they happen to deadlock — 5,000 to 5,000 — they will look at your vote. Otherwise, they won’t. So far, it has never happened, not even once.
- They throw your vote in with theirs.
Nozick’s question: When did you cease to be a slave? Annoyingly, he doesn’t answer. My answer is below the fold.
I would say that for the entire sequence, I remain a slave. What would make me not a slave? I’d demand three things:
- A clear statement, with reasonable assurances of compliance, about what the democratic polity is permitted to do, beyond which its actions are illegitimate.
- A clear statement, with reasonable assurances of compliance, that I as an individual retain residual rights that the polity cannot alienate from me, not even by the unanimous consent of the others.
- A guarantee that I as a person am not to be bought or sold, and that no part of my labor or property will be taken from me arbitrarily.
While Nozick really does lay bare the compulsion inherent in democratic government, in a sense he’s also performing a parlor trick — we do not have the government that he (rightly) complains about.
If this seems to defang Nozick entirely too much, I’ll simply point out that many, many people would be delighted to have just such a government.
I would not. I would further suggest that a guarantee of universal health care runs afoul of the first of my preconditions for not being a slave, at least as that precondition is implemented, because it is not authorized by the Constitution. My Cato colleague Roger Pilon explains why the General Welfare clause doesn’t get us there, with an assist from James Madison, who wrote:
Some, who have not denied the necessity of the power of taxation, have grounded a very fierce attack against the Constitution, on the language in which it is defined. It has been urged and echoed, that the power “to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises, to pay the debts, and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States,” amounts to an unlimited commission to exercise every power which may be alleged to be necessary for the common defense or general welfare. No stronger proof could be given of the distress under which these writers labor for objections, than their stooping to such a misconstruction…. Had no other enumeration or definition of the powers of the Congress been found in the Constitution, than the general expressions just cited, the authors of the objection might have had some color for it…. But what color can the objection have, when a specification of the objects alluded to by these general terms immediately follows, and is not even separated by a longer pause than a semicolon?